Good Faith in the Age of Osteen: Blessed in the Darkness (5/7)

Joel Osteen was born March 5, 1963 in Houston, Texas. His parents were the founders of the nondenominational Lakewood Church where his father served as pastor until 1999 when he passed away. Osteen attended Oral Roberts University where he briefly studied radio and television communications before dropping out to help with Lakewood’s television ministry, serving as producer of the church’s broadcasts. After his father’s death, and despite his lacking formal training as a pastor, Osteen took over, and under his leadership, Lakewood became one of the fastest-growing churches in America. The church now averages around 52,000 attendees per week with Osteen as senior pastor and his wife, Victoria, as co-pastor. With 15 published works, Osteen has topped The New York Times Best Seller list nine times and as of 2017 had a reported net worth of between forty and sixty million dollars. Osteen says that he draws no salary from the church’s seventy-million-dollar annual budget but rather relies on income from his book sales.

When I began working on this project in 2017, his most recently published book was Blessed in the Darkness: How All Things are Working for Your Good, and it served as my jumping-off point in terms of how I wanted to approach Osteen’s ideology.[1] I will not be discussing anything else Osteen published or any of the other media (podcasts, televised services, interviews, devotionals, tweets) Osteen has also produced in an effort to focus my project. This is not because I do not think a comprehensive look at Osteen’s work would be illuminating but because Blessed in the Darkness most fully encapsulates what I believe to be the fundamental existential problem regarding Osteen’s beliefs. And, in regard to its having been the most recently published book at the time, I wanted to look at what his most recent claims were so as to not mischaracterize where he was at doctrinally.

I also chose this work because it does not have much to do with the gospel of wealth, the aspect of Osteen’s theology that is most criticized. This is not because it is an invalid criticism. There is a reason why it is the most criticized component and that is because it is the most obviously identifiable problem. But effective critiques that focus on this already exist, and I am more interested in positing a new perspective from which to critique him, a perspective that means a lot to me and deserves to have a place in the conversation regarding Osteen’s harm.

The basic premise of Blessed in the Darkness is that “dark places” are an inevitable and necessary part of life. Dark places are moment of hardship in which “you pray more, you draw closer to God, and you take time to get quiet and listen to what He’s saying. In those dark places you reevaluate your priorities, you slow down and take time for family, and you get a new appreciation for what God has given you.”[2] Dark places “toughen us up.” They shape us in meaningful ways because God uses these places to teach us important life lessons we could only get in a dark place. According to Osteen, it is all a part of God’s plan for making us into who we were created to be. Our obligation in those dark places is to have a good attitude and keep the “right perspective” with the knowledge that God placed us there for a reason.

He likens these places to “night seasons” in the second chapter in order to reassure us that these dark places are always temporary.[3] “It’s just a matter of time before the morning breaks forth.”[4] He says this is why he calls it a night season and not a night lifetime. We are going to get through it because God is going to redeem whatever negative situations we find ourselves in. Therefore, we are able to say things like “All is well”[5] and “It’s all good”[6] and “Payback is coming,”[7] because even if things are not resolved in the ways we ask God to resolve them, that does not mean that God has not answered our prayers. We can rest assured in the knowledge that God will redeem any and all night seasons, or dark places, or moments of inconvenience in such a way that we will learn a valuable lesson and be repaid for the suffering we had to endure. God will “rebalance the books.” Osteen goes as far as to say “I believe and declare God is going to balance your books. He’s going to turn the darkest of situations around. He’s going to open new doors of opportunity. Promotion is coming, vindication is coming. Because you honor Him, even your enemies are going to be at peace with you.”[8]

That is not to say this process does not require patience and trust on our end. This is a form of anxiety that Osteen acknowledges, the anxiety of the in-between, of having to sit in the suffering for its duration not knowing in what way things will be resolved. But our anxiety is unwarranted if we remind ourselves that our God is not just a God of beginnings and ends but also a “God of the middle.” “When you’re in the middle, God has given you the promise, and you know the destination. But you’re en route… Along the way you’ll face situations that look impossible — the odds are against you, the opposition is stronger, the report says you’re not going to get well. Be encouraged, knowing that the God of the middle is right there with you.”[9] “The middle” is essentially just another way of characterizing night seasons, just with more of a focus on the fact that they exist after the promise of redemption but before the redemption itself. It a time of patience, but we can also rest assured because we do not have to wait it out alone. God is with us every step of the way.

However, we are not even responsible for how those steps look. Osteen references Psalm 138 which he says tells us God will work out His plans for our lives. “It doesn’t say that we have to work out our plans, make things happen with our own strength, and be frustrated when they’re not happening the way we thought they would. We can stay in peace, knowing that the Lord, the God who created the universe, the God who spoke worlds into existence, has promised He will work out His plans for our lives.”[10] In saying that this promise exists, Osteen is saying that the plans are inevitable, relegating us to a more passive role than if we were responsible for living out whatever that plan may be. The very existence of a plan someone else is working out on our behalf takes away our agency in that plan’s existence and specifics. We are not in control; God is. All we have to do is be patient, put on a smile, and let the plan play out how God intends it to, warts and all.

This is what allows us to have hope in the darkness. He likens hope to an anchor saying that scripture tells us hope is the anchor of our soul. Being anchored to hope is what is going to keep our soul “in the right place.” So, hope is both the anchor and the thing being anchored to, apparently.[11] “The winds, the waves, and the dark storms of life may come, but you’re not worried. You have your anchor down.”[12] That idea of not being worried is important to keep in mind as a lot of Osteen’s rhetoric revolves around assuaging anxieties that tend to be present in the sorts of situations he is concerned with. For him, hope and anxiety seem to be mutually exclusive because if we have hope, we will not be anxious.

But Osteen assures us that hope does not simply mean being positive, though he consistently highlights the importance of a positive attitude. No — being anchored to the right thing is more difficult than that as there are many things we can anchor ourselves to, things like discouragement, bitterness, and self-pity. He says that although we sometimes have good reason to feel those ways, they are going to keep us from our destiny, our purpose. “It’s time to cut that anchor and come over into hope.”[13] There is an interesting tension between our role in choosing to anchor ourselves to hope or have hope as our anchor (depending on which metaphor you want to roll with), and the facticity of God’s will being done regardless of our attitude. At no point does it sound like God’s will will not be done if we do not adopt the attitude Osteen says we need to. Our incentive to adopt that attitude seems to stem solely from an aversion to anxiety which, granted, is understandable. Anxiety is difficult to grapple with and live through. But it is ultimately unrealistic to the nature of suffering and essence of Christianity to assume you can evade it completely (more on that later).

A couple more chapters happen that basically say the same thing with different metaphors, and he haphazardly throws in concepts like faith in there for good measure without really elucidating their meaning or significance.

The final chapter of the book begins with a movie metaphor after Osteen recounts an interaction he had with a “well-known actor.” When writing a movie, this actor/screenwriter says that he starts with the final scene. Osteen says God works in the same way, that Isaiah says, “God declares the end from the beginning.”[14] He also invokes Jeremiah and says, “God’s plans for you are for good and not for evil, to give you an expected end.”[15] He is paraphrasing liberally in both these instances, but his main point is that “as in a movie, there will be twists and turns… There will be scenes in your life that on their own don’t make sense… But what you don’t realize is that’s not your final scene. As long as you have breath, your movie is still in development.”[16] God is the screenwriter for our lives who has already decided the entire story prior to the filming of our movie. How I see this metaphor, our role is most akin to the characters in the movie as we are not freely-willing subjects so much as we are determined by the constraints of whatever the screenplay dictates. We are not actors because actors have awareness of the specifics of the screenplay having read it before the movie was filmed. We are not directors because directors have a direct say in how the screenplay is manifested. We are unaware and not in control. We experience the unfolding of the movie as the characters in it would.

Osteen has “heard it said” that “God always ends in ‘all is well.’ If all is not well, that means it’s not the end.”[17] Our final scene will be good. God promises this much. He uses his father’s story as a testimony to this as his father came from a poor family but had the “established end” of pastoring a great church and establishing a ministry with a worldwide influence.

Osteen ends his book with this: “Friend, your final scene has been shot. Now don’t let the twists, the turns, and the dark places that don’t make sense cause you to get discouraged. Keep moving forward. In the end it’s all going to work to your advantage… You don’t have to worry or live upset. God has established your end… God will cause you to finish in victory.”[18]

For my final section, I am going to take all of the aforementioned ideas in Osteen’s work and discuss why they are problematic through a comparative study of Blessed in the Darkness and what I will call the “Good Faith Christianity” I spent the first three parts of this series establishing.

[1] Joel Osteen, Blessed in the Darkness: How All Things Are Working for Your Good (New York: FaithWords, 2017).

[2] Ibid., 3–4.

[3] The name “night season” has biblical roots and is how some biblical translations render the Hebrew terms lavil, lel, or lavelah, forms of “at night” that can be meant in the sense of the Hebrew luwl which means a “twist away” of the light. A verse like Psalm 16:7 is translated as “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me” in the NIV whereas the King James 2000 version will phrase it as “… my heart also instructs me in the night seasons” which is where we can see the parallel to Osteen’s usage.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 24.

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Ibid., 163.

[8] Ibid., 173.

[9] Ibid., 181.

[10] Ibid., 183.

[11] Ibid., 191.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 201.

[14] Ibid., 272.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 272–273.

[17] Ibid., 275.

[18] Ibid., 284–285.

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Tommy Kessler

Chicago-based writer and musician. 1970s drug-fueled private investigator.